Julian Fellowes has delivered again. No, I'm not referring to the third series of Downton Abbey - it doesn't start in Sweden until November - but to his novel Past Imperfect, which I finished a week ago and enjoyed hugely. It dates from the era pre-Downton, like the other Fellowes novel Snobs. I had considered buying one of them for some time, but was held back by bourgeois misgivings. It is no secret that Fellowes is a champion of the English upper class, and he has gone on record saying (with some justice) that toff-bashing is the only prejudice which is not chastised by society in general. Good for him, but what does a man like that make of the kind of people I admire - the energetic doers of the middle class? Isn't there a risk that he would - well, sneer?
I don't know if I'm typical of other members of the middle class, but deep down I have a lingering fear that those above me on the social ladder sneer at me, and those below me want to kill me, or at the very least rob me. Above, there's Sir Percy Blakeney, baronet; below, there's the wheezing, bourgeois-girl-throttling miner grandpa from the film Germinal (no, I haven't read the book, nor will I). And while I have to confess that wheezing miner grandpas are probably thin on the ground, my mistrust of aristocrats - and gentry - is harder to shift. I have wondered from time to time if I do toffs an injustice, the English ones at least. There's Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant claiming that the English nobility never looked down their noses at anyone. There's Bertie Wooster and his pals in P.G. Wodehouse's novels, who are delighted with American millionaires and their daughters and never seem to spare a thought for the way they eat their peas. Maybe the picture of the English aristocracy as disdainful dandies conjured up by characters such as Sir Percy, various Regency Romance bucks, even sometimes Lord Peter Wimsey - all, let's not forget, meant to be heroic - is quite simply wrong? Maybe they're all an unaffected and jolly lot who like a hunt now and then but who couldn't care less about what you call the smallest room in the house?
Then on the other hand, no, I don't think it's quite that simple. The upper-crust world described by Fellowes in Past Imperfect does little to dispel my wariness. It's not that Fellowes is in any way mean to his own kind. He is loyal to his caste and fights their corner. His upper-class characters are for the most part well-rounded, often likeable, and a welcome change from Midsomer Murder-like grotesques. You want them to do well. At the same time, not even Fellowes can absolve them from the sin of snobbery (in the modern sense). It is snobbery of the worst kind directed at the middle-class interloper of the '68 Season, Damian Baxter, that embitters him and causes him to lash out against amongst others the novel's hero. It is snobbery that makes his lashing-out as harmful as it is, with the hero feeling resentful over the repercussions forty years down the line. Snobbery (and, it must be said, chippiness) needlessly poison the atmosphere between the book's protagonists, and Fellowes, far from gushing over snobbish behaviour like the baroness Orczy and her ilk, is severely against it. The unnamed hero does his best to fight tendencies of haughtiness in himself, not always with success. You marvel at his attempt to understand why we ordinary non-high-born mortals want to dine "early", that is, sometime before eight or half past eight in the evening. Er, because we're hungry.
All the same, Past Imperfect leaves one feeling quite toff-friendly at the end and willing to extend a conciliating hand. Heck, these are people, not monocled ogres. Even the poised aristo babe mellows on closer acquaintance, much like Lady Mary in Downton. My fear of sneering is still present and correct, though. There are, after all, exchanges such as this:
"Did Damian really say 'pleased to meet you'?"
"Apparently. It just shows how nervous he must have been."
What's wrong with "pleased to meet you"? What? So wrong even a social climber would only say it if he was "nervous"? It's this mindless tabooing of certain phrases, words and gestures just to trip up us who are not in the know and brand us "vulgar" that makes me see red. Maybe I've got more in common with grandpa miner after all?